Canadian Wonder

A couple of Sunday mornings past I drove down to the Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga after spending a few days with my fellow Canadian Unitarian Council board members at the Ecology Retreat Centre in Hockley Valley. We’d had gorgeous weather on Saturday, with the just beginning to colour leaves glowing in the sunshine in the woods. It was a good meeting but I was tired, and feeling a little unprepared for worship as I left the Centre in the pouring rain.

Fortunately, moments of wonder can happen in the most unexpected places.

I drove down Highway 10, passing green forests with an occasional highlight of red-orange brilliance. Shelagh Rogers was interviewing Lenard Cohen on CBC One. Then KD Lang began singing Cohen’s Hallelujah. And I had one of those moments when you simply are in the moment – the pouring rain, the thunk thunk of the windshield wipers, the flashes of autumn colour, Shelagh’s warm tones, Leonard’s raspiness and the power of KD’s voice offering a bittersweet song all combined into a moment of perfect beingness – a feeling that to simply be alive here and now in this place filled with all sorts of beauty was enough. It’s hard to describe these moments of just being, but they allow me to not be me and just be immersed in the present, in presence.

I stopped worrying about the service and had a peaceful drive through the storm.

Here is K.D. Lang’s gorgeous rendition of Hallelujah from the 2005 Junos.

Honouring the Animals

The Makuna people are an indigenous people living within the borders of Columbia.  The Makuna maintain that humans, animals, plants, all of nature, are part of a great Oneness.  Our ancestors long ago, they say, were magical fish who came ashore along the rivers and became two-legged.  As these first land beings began to sing and conduct their lives, everything in the world began to be created: hills and forest; animal and bird people; insect and fish people.  But – here’s the twist – this creation process is still going on.

The world is still being created, right here, right now: our words and actions still determine the nature of the hills and forests, still help create, sustain – or destroy – the animal and bird people, the insect and fish people.

We share a spiritual essence, the Makuna say, with the swimming, flying, four-legged people and all the rest.  They also live in communities, have chiefs and shamans, dance houses and birth houses, songs and rites, even material possessions, as we do.  Think of ants, a bull cariboo, or a black raven, think of bird nests and whale songs, think of territories and prey.

According to the Makuna, our essential oneness with other species is a source of an enormous obligation.  We depend on insect, fish, animal and bird people to eat and live.  In return, the insect, fish, animal and bird people depend on us to spiritually enact, daily, the hidden oneness of all life.  Anytime humans eat, anytime humans gather, anytime we celebrate, we have an obligation to offer “spirit food” to all the other creatures, so that they may celebrate in their worlds.  And if we fail to make such offerings – if we do not spiritually share with other species – they die.  So say the Makuna.

Salmon NationHow do we offer “spirit food” to other creatures?  The native people on the west coast, who depended on the salmon for  so much, used to offer elaborate gifts, dances and feasts to honour the coming of the salmon.  On a rational level it  sounds rather foolish and unnecessary. Yet our industrial selves offered the salmon dams and destruction of most of their habitat.  Wild salmon are in danger. Perhaps we do need a change in attitude. Gifting and feasting and the awareness of our need for other species may keep us human people grounded and connected and careful.

We forget how spiritually alive and capable we are.  Reverence for life, for all the swimming, flying, and four legged people, is a good thing. We should be proud to honour the diversity of life that surrounds us, we should be bold in our appreciation of their great gifts.

What is a modern day spirit offering? Perhaps it is giving our money  to causes like endangered animals or the humane society or reducing meat consumption because of the suffering of factory animals, or the time we take to play with, and care for, our animal companions.  A spirit offering is giving something that we value  – our energy, our focus, our time – to another being or group of beings.

What can we do to recognize and honour the oneness of the world?  How can we turn towards creating a world that sustains and celebrates insect and fish people, animal and bird people?  How do we make spirit offerings part of our lives once more?

from a sermon first preached in 2006.

Eating with Honour

photo from diabeticfoodie.com

photo from diabeticfoodie.com


We eat from the earth
We drink from the rain
We breathe from the air
We live in all things
All things live in us
We are grateful.

I love food. I am greedy for food. I am one of those people who live to eat, not just to live. I would be content to cook and eat and read books about food all day long.  But I find that when my family gets busier with work and school and activities, the quality of our food goes down. We cook quickly or not at all, buy more packaged food, eat more junk because we no longer have the time. Food loses its value so quickly. But I want more. I want to eat in knowledge and in gratitude. I want to eat with grace and honour. I want to eat according to the principles I agreed to when I became a Unitarian.

Our religion is a living religion – still developing our common connections. We do not share beliefs about divinity but principles about how we should be in the world – how we should be in relationship with other people and beings.  But principles are meaningless unless we express them in our daily lives. As James MacKinnon, author of the 100 Mile Diet, says, “When we act in ways that honour our principles we feel fulfillment and a sense of aliveness, of being true to ourselves”. I feel better when we cook from scratch and in season, not because the food tastes better – it doesn’t always as I’m not a great cook – but because I am connecting to my principles. I like knowing that my veggies are grown nearby – I like knowing the names of the farmers and the bakers and the shopkeepers. I want to be embedded – connected – to this place I call home.

As members of a living, growing, forming religion, we are called to pay attention. To pay attention to all that we do in our daily lives:  to keep our daily tasks in line with our principles, to keep ourselves connected to the larger whole by honouring that which we profess to believe. This can be hard to do with so much of our lives attached to computers and machines and meetings and stuff.  But every day we bring the world within us with the food we eat.  Food connects us – biologically, politically, emotionally and spiritually.

How do we eat?  How does what we eat reflect our Unitarian Universalist principles?  How about how we eat? If we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person and work for justice, equity and compassion in human relations, how can we eat tropical fruits when the farm workers are displaced peasants sick with pesticide exposure? If we respect the interdependent web of existence, how can we eat the misery of caged animals who live their lives standing in their own manure?

With unfortunate ease, of course.  Because we don’t see it.  We don’t live it. We get our bright and shiny food from our bright and shiny supermarkets. Not only do we not have to know, we can’t know. How can we possibly know what the cow’s name was? A single hamburger could be made from the meat of a thousand cows. How can we possibly know the name of the person who picked the apple on the other side of the world in New Zealand? It was probably a mechanical picker anyway.

We have to choose – choose to live our principles.

Good food is everywhere. We can make good food choices that honour the principles of our faith. Not necessarily every meal or every day – the time goes quickly. But we can make choices that connect our food lives to our spiritual lives. That brings us to a sense of aliveness and fulfillment by honouring the inherent worth of every person, by seeking justice in our global food system, by respecting the animals that we depend on.

Wendell Berry, the great essayist and farmer, notes that “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation.  The point is, when we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament; when we do it ignorantly, greedily, destructively, it is a desecration, we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.”

Writer Gary Paul Nabhan says that “eating is perhaps the most direct way we acknowledge or deny the sacredness of the earth.”

Buy local, eat less meat, eat with gratitude. Any of these acts – and so many more – bring our principles to life. They help us remember that our culture, our community, our religion, is stronger and deeper than that of this fast food nation.  Let us let our principles guide our lives so that we may cherish all people and all beings.

 

Spaciousness and Spirit

crane-bird-flying

As a society, we tend to be impressed by people who sleep little, as if it is a sign of accomplishment; not taking vacation is seen as a good work ethic, instead of a poor life choice. We need, I believe, to participate in what might be described as a certain vibrant emptiness, what the Japanese call ma. Ma is found in the silences between words, in the white space on a page, in the tacit understanding between two close friends. The Japanese school of Sumi painting says: “If you depict a bird, give it space to fly”.  How do we give ourselves that space to fly?  (from World Enough & Time by Christian McEwan.)

In the Tao Te Ching (translation by Ursula Le Guin), a book of wisdom first written down almost 2,500 years ago, chapter 11 discusses the importance of creating space for living:

Thirty spokes meet in the hub.
Where the wheel isn’t is where it is useful.

Hollowed out, clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not is where it is useful.

Cut doors and windows make a room.
where the room isn’t, there’s room for you.

So the profit in what is
is in the use of what isn’t.

Where the pot is not is where it is useful. I love this kind of backwards revelation, this reminder that it is the space itself that is useful. Where the room isn’t, there is room for you.

I believe the text is reminding us of the importance of emptiness. The absolute necessity for room to simply live, that spaciousness is a meaningful necessity to humanity. It is the unused space in a room that makes it habitable.This space might be physical but its effect is metaphysical,it allows our spirits to stretch and  unfurl, helps us to find calmness and focus.

In the Unitarian tradition, our chalice, while it can be filled with fire, with water, and with flowers, can also be empty.  Each service we sit together in silence, opening to the quiet silence.  It is these moments that free us to be ourselves. It is in the empty spaces that we can re-connect to the awesome, unnameable sense of the immensity of being.

How do you make space for your spirit to unfurl and fly?

 

excerpt from Finding Stillness, a reflection given at the UU Congregation of Durham on June 9, 2013.

Simply Wait

by Lee Ransaw

by Lee Ransaw

I used this quote from the brilliant writer Franz Kafka as the closing words at last Sunday’s service at the UU Congregation of Durham.  We were exploring the idea of finding space for true relaxation in our lives.  This summed it up perfectly.

Blessing    from Franz Kafka

You don’t need to leave your room.
Remain sitting at your table and listen.

Don’t even listen, simply wait.
Don’t even wait, be quite still and solitary.

The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked,
it has no choice,
it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

In the coming weeks, let the world offer itself to you.
Simply wait.

Ministry – How exciting!

final poster web The following is an essay – “what excites you about ministry?” – I had to write in 2009 when I applied for candidate status as a Unitarian Universalist minister.  With my final step – ordination – on this Sunday – it’s affirming to see that I am still largely motivated by the same interests.

The light of a chalice.  Pouring the waters.  Exchanging flowers.  Honouring Charles Darwin.  Speaking out for justice. Celebrating connections.  These are some of the UU rituals and practices which inspired me to turn to UU ministry.  Three aspects of my vocation are most exciting:  creating sacred space for reflection and connection, encouraging UUs to live out our shared values in daily life, and articulating the uniquely UU way of being in the world. Continue reading

silver rain

icy crocus

Spring has receded as winter returns in the form of freezing rain and icy snow.  Trees, cars, mailboxes – every surface slicked over with ice.  Even the crocuses, which were merrily blooming yesterday, are closed up against the ice.  I have been thinking of poet Langston Hughes’ poem In Time of Silver Rain, which has been adapted into a Unitarian Universalist hymn.  I love this gentle song, and while Hughes was writing about a much warmer spring, the silver rain has been in abundance here in South-western Ontario.  But even with the freezing rain, spring is lurking, waiting to return.  Robins, cardinals, finches, sparrows, and blue jays are busy in the gardens, and the first pale mist of green is emerging from grass and shrubs.  Life, life, life, indeed.

In time of silver rain the earth puts forth new life again,

green grasses grow and flowers lift their heads,

and over all the plain the wonder spreads of life, of life, of life!
In time of silver rain the butterflies lift silken wings,

and trees put forth new leaves to sing in joy

beneath the sky in time of silver rain,

when spring and life are new.
from the hymnal Singing in the Living Tradition
adapted from the Langston Hughes poem.

Becoming Reverend

final poster web

On Sunday May 5th, the Grand River Unitarian Congregation in Kitchener will ordain me as a Unitarian Universalist minister, bestowing upon me the title of Reverend and a stole as a symbol of ministry.

Please see my Ordination page (also up on the menu bar) for more details about this special service of celebration.

woodcut chalice

Much of ministry is a benediction—
A speaking well of each other and the world—
A speaking well of what we value:

– honesty
– love
– forgiveness
– trust

A speaking well of our efforts—
A speaking well of our dreams.
This is how we celebrate life:
Through speaking well of it,
Living the benediction,
and becoming as a word
well-spoken.

Susan Manker-Seale